Wednesday, November 12, 2014

AFI Top 100: #83 "Titanic"

Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (1997)

Boy, was it hard finding pictures for this movie that weren't (a) cliche, (b) fanfic, or (c) parodies! The plethora of iconic screenshots is the first hint that this film bled heavily into the American cinema-scape, in ways both good and bad. The #83 slot on the AFI Top 100 countdown is filled by the James Cameron epic, Titanic, which won 11 Oscars in 1997, tying for the most wins ever with #100 on our list, Ben-Hur. The record has since been tied again by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, but still never beaten.

A small anecdote before kicking this thing off. I think I'm not alone in saying that if you were in middle school (or high school, or maybe even college) when this movie came out, there was nothing—and I mean nothing—that was a bigger deal. I was in 6th grade, and absolutely obsessed. Mostly with star Leonardo DiCaprio, but also pretty heavily with the movie. How many of you remember your friends competing for how many times they went to see it in the theater? No, just me then? I saw it seven times before it left theaters (and cried the first six), which was well under some of my friends. It was that popular.

(Update: After posting this, I was reminded by one of my friends that my sis and I had a Leo-themed birthday party the year this came out. My obsession was more intense than I remember).

The partially historical, romantic drama is, at its core, a painstakingly researched retelling of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1914. On the surface, however, it focuses on the fictional romance between society debutante, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), a 3rd class ticket holding artist. Rose has been betrothed to the son of a wealthy oil tycoon, Calvin (Billy Zane), but she can't stand him or the life of formalities she's living. Jack is a breath of fresh sea air, and in true "got-nothing-left-to-lose" fashion, Jack sweeps her off her feet, pissing off Calvin and her mother in the process.

I'm pretty sure we all know this plot, right? Am I wasting precious review space? Probably. So to sum it up, Titanic is essentially two different movies: the historical one and the fictional one—because of this, there are two different stories to critique.

It's impossible to overlook that writer/director James Cameron did his due diligence in preparing to tell the story of the Titanic. He's confessed to being obsessed with the tragic sinking and has funded multiple real expeditions to the underwater wreckage. In the film, his attention to detail and astounding to-scale replicas of different parts of the ship, both inside and out, are awe-inspiring. No matter how much time passes, or how many times I see this movie, every knob, every teacup, every stained glass window, and every rivet is something to behold. Every piece has significance, and every detail is intentional.

There are scenes in this movie that make my jaw hit the floor and/or well up with tears. To this day, 17 years later (omg!), the graphics continue to impress. When the stern of the ship begins to rise into the air, the building-sized propellers freeing themselves from the ocean, only to cause the ship to crack in half—I'm getting chills now, just typing that! The overwhelming beauty and luxury of this cruise liner and its passengers is perfectly (warning! film school word!) juxtaposed with the panic, terror, and tragedy of those same people trying to escape it with their lives. And don't even get me started on that old couple spooning in bed as water rises around them. Just don't even mention it!

Now, the love story, for me, is like too-sweet icing on an already delicious cake. Of course, when I was a middle schooler, it was all I cared about. In my young mind, it was the sexiest, most torrid love affair imaginable, and I was ├╝ber-jealous of Kate and wanted Leo to be my boyfriend forever and ever.

In adulthood, however, it doesn't hold the same appeal. I like it, don't get me wrong. It's fine, the way that a necessary plot has to be; but it's simplistic and frankly, futile. Cameron's dialogue can't survive under the weight of its own trivialities, and credit must be given to the actors for slogging through what I can only imagine was countless delivery attempts to make the lines sound not silly. Truthfully, they did a pretty good job, and likely with no help from Cameron.

I'm going to take a quick moment to acknowledge James Horner's score. It is phenomenal. I truly believe that the movie would not have been as effective had it not been for the music. It was the score that made every scene, every transition, and every wide-eyed, penetrating stare send chills of exhilaration through all of us, as if every moment was like that scene in Jurassic Park where they see the dinosaurs for the first time. You know, even if it didn't warrant it. Horner is that effective.

Titanic has many haters, and it's something I never understood. The script could have gone through some more iterations, sure, and the fan girl craze surrounding it can only be paralleled by Twi-Hards, which is instantly off-putting. Cameron's own hubris and ego also contribute to audiences rolling their eyes and doubting his grandiose intentions. But come on! Just look at it, you guys!

I can't begrudge the movie for making children and adults alike buy tickets again and again for a historical drama. An important one, at that. As a history buff, myself, I understand and respect Cameron for gilding up a subject that he loved with a non-threatening and heart-wrenching romance he knew everyone else would want to watch. It's the too-sweet frosting we stomach to get at the rich and decadent cake inside, and it's worth every bite.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

Check back next week for #82, Sunrise  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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